Reading Time: 8 minutes 20 seconds
By: Sara Fleming
Some question whether kids belong in the weight room. Should young athletes engage in a weight training program? While lifting weights may not be right (or enjoyable) for every child, there’s no reason why some can’t pursue this physical activity. Here’s why.
Several years ago, one of my clients brought her daughter to a training session. At 12 years old, she was a tall girl, almost my height. But she was slouched over, stared at the floor, and just looked miserable.
My client told me that her daughter was having a rough week. Her soccer coach kicked her off the team. Not for any disciplinary issues, but because he didn't think she was any good.
Think about that for a minute. A preteen girl was told she wasn't good enough, and that she couldn't play soccer anymore. This just broke my heart.
I had to do something to help restore this young girl's confidence. I wanted to show her that she could be an athlete. I worked with her throughout the summer, and we discovered something important. This 12-year-old girl LOVED to lift weights!
I taught her the basic barbell lifts and, as she got stronger, I moved her on to the snatch and the clean and jerk. As her muscular strength improved, her coordination and confidence grew.
Within a year, I took her to her first weightlifting meet. Over the next three years, she went on to compete twice at USAW Youth Nationals. In the end, this young athlete became one of the most highly ranked high school pole vaulters in the state on her high school track and field team.
Ever since that experience, I have been a huge advocate of strength training for kids. I have trained my own three children to compete in powerlifting. And I designed a strength class that I teach at their elementary school.
When I work with kids, I see their attitudes change. I see their self-confidence skyrocket and their physical strength go from non-existent to impressive. This shift is especially great to see in kids who are used to being inactive or who have a higher body weight. You can see their motivation increase.
Despite the positive experiences I have had with kids and strength training, the idea of giving kids weights to lift makes people nervous. Parents often have some valid questions:
"Is it safe for kids to do weightlifting?"
"What if my kid gets hurt?"
"Is strength really necessary for a kid?"
I think it is necessary. There are a lot of reasons to get your child into strength training, and even competitive weightlifting.
Most kids are simply not strong enough in this day and age. They are less physically active than ever before. You can see this lack of strength and activity in how kids slouch at their desks or over their mobile devices. Whenever you see poor posture, you are seeing a weak body.
A child that cannot support proper posture does not have adequate muscle strength. They also have poor balance, lack coordination, and have overall bad muscle endurance.
"In the last 20 years of practice, the prevalence of forward head posture/anterior head carry in both youth and adults has exploded. What used to be on occasional postural finding has now become sadly the norm. Computer use, Video games, lap top computer use, smart phones, tablets and general inactivity have been the drivers of this postural distortion. The head becomes flexed forward to view the screens, this creates a shortening of the anterior neck flexors and a weakening of the neck extensors. For every inch the head moves off the midline it adds ten pounds of weight as far as the supportive muscles are concerned. This increased muscle tension leads to all kinds of health ailments including: neck pain, upper back pain, spasms, headaches, TMJ pain, muscle weakness and decreased vital lung capacity to name a few". -Dr. Allen Ashforth, D.C., C.C.W.P
Now, you may be asking, but can't my child just get adequate strength from playing outside more? Is weight lifting or other forms of resistance training really the answer? It's true that there is no substitute for both the joy and the health benefits of active play. But for some kids, taking the extra step to build strength can make a world of difference.
Strength training has tremendous benefits for children. The primary benefit is that it builds postural strength as well as trunk and joint stability. This improves the ability to support the spine and joints under load and through movement.
Strength training also improves coordination. It helps with injury prevention and contributes to improvements in power, speed, and endurance.
These benefits don’t just apply to small or weak children. They apply to all kids. I train many big, strong kids who are chronically injured from strength imbalances.
Strength training can reverse these negative effects. It can give a child the ability to sit, walk, and engage in all other kinds of movements correctly. This helps prevent injury, pain, and future health problems.
Most importantly, a youth training program can inspire a child to live an active and healthy lifestyle. This is the primary goal of any type of athletic or training program for kids, including those involving weight lifting and strength training.
Here are just a few of the benefits of strength training for kids, as supported by research:
Improved muscular fitness and body composition
Stimulated bone mineralization and improved bone mineral density
Improved blood lipid profiles
Improved mental health and self-confidence
Better sports performance
Some studies have also found that weight training can increase strength, overall function, and mental well-being in children with cerebral palsy. When used during rehabilitation, it can help prevent an injury, particularly to the shoulders and knees.
Kids are not the same as adults. To teach children lifting, such as with free weights, I follow special guidelines. The ultimate priority is to keep them safe while giving them all the benefits of strength training.
Every child is different. But there is such a thing as being too young to start weightlifting, no matter how carefully they are guided by a professional. Generally, it is recommended that the child be at least 7 years old. They must also be able to follow directions about proper technique and form.
The most important part of safe lifting is good posture. This is the first skill a child needs to learn. Once they get it, you can put proper posture into the context of any lifting exercise. Teaching safe form is easier and more effective when exercises are all based on the same model of good posture.
Strength is a skill. Teaching lifting and strength training should be approached as a skill that needs to be practiced. Size of weights (heavy weights vs. lighter weight) and the number of reps are secondary to good form, a learned skill.
Pro Tip: When I teach kids, I emphasize the beauty of the movement, not the number on the weights or the rep list.
Kids have different limb lengths and trunk lengths. They also come in different heights and weights. So, the ideal form for a particular exercise may be completely different for one versus another.
If a child is having a hard time performing an exercise, an adjustment may need to be made. This might involve changing their stance or posture. Inhibited range of motion is another sign that an adjustment might be needed.
If a child cannot consistently use good form during a set of repetitions, the weight is too much. Period. I reduce the weights until their form is perfect, and only then do we continue.
After posture, a proper squat is the most important skill in lifting. It is a foundational move that builds a strong core and hips. Children know how to squat, but not correctly under load. (This is the important part.) This needs to be taught early for good form, strength, and safe movements.
Trying to introduce too many resistance exercises is counterproductive. Younger children specifically only have so much attention to devote to one activity. A squat, push-up, or assisted pull-up or row is enough for one session.
As children get older, this doesn't change much. Good quality work on fewer exercises keeps them mentally engaged and focused on good form.
Kids are in no rush and their trainer shouldn't be either. It takes a long time to develop the good form that becomes second nature to experienced lifters.
Sometimes, due to biomechanics, you may have a child who needs to do pushups from their knees, can't squat below parallel, or can't do a pull-up. That's fine. This is skill development, not a race to get to a certain number.
This should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway. Lack of proper supervision is the biggest cause of injuries in the weight room. Eyeballs should be on kids’ weightlifting at all times.
If this means a group class needs more than one trainer, then assistants should be brought in to help. Running a group strength training program without adequate supervision is a recipe for issues.
As with adults, strength isn't everything. Children need cardiovascular exercise too. This is where natural play is perfect.
Running around with friends, riding bikes, or just going for a walk as a family will all do. These are the fun, social activities that should accompany any kind of strength training. Even if they are an athlete, we must also not forget that they are a kid.
Not all kids who try strength training need to get as into it as my children do. They don't need to become powerlifters or compete. There are fun, easy ways to get kids involved in lifting, and they should always be led by experienced trainers.
To get children involved in strength training, I started a club at my children's school. For the first meeting, we cover some basics. I introduce them to good posture and squat form, and give a little lesson on anatomy.
At each subsequent meeting, I lead the kids in a fun warm-up, and agility, and cardio moves. Then, we work on basic strength training moves, with an emphasis on form. Among the moves covered include:
Each meeting ends with free play. We play games like dodgeball or capture the flag to emphasize that being active is fun.
In the final class, we warm up and then I let the children deadlift with a rising bar until they pull a relatively heavy single with good form. We're not looking to max out here. We just want to see how much weight they can pull with good form without the bar slowing down.
All the children in my program have been able to lift at least their body weight. If form changes or they look like they are straining, they are done.
For a more focused group of children, I like to introduce powerlifting, as I did with my own kids. In kids' powerlifting, we still do some of the agility and basic resistance moves like plyo jumps, push-ups, and core work. But we really focus on lifts. We spend more time on the three basics:
Powerlifting with kids is all about working on form and the basic lifts. Just two sessions per week is fun, not too taxing, and provides great benefits. From basic powerlifting, kids who love to do it can choose to train for competitions.
Whether you are a trainer or a parent, don't be afraid of strength training and lifting for kids. They can do it if properly guided by a trainer. They can have fun and get stronger at the same time.
Teaching children to lift weight gives them an athletic skill, confidence, and improved physical health. It also inspires them to be more active. For more guidelines regarding working with youth, check out ISSA’s Lifespan Coach Certification.
The ISSA Lifespan Coach gives you the specific knowledge and skills you need to train youth and senior clients. Find out how to give youth clients the motivation and guidance they need to continue healthy habits into adulthood as you instill the value of health and fitness at an early age. While also learning how to train aging or senior clients to decrease risks caused by inactivity through carefully regimented fitness routines to keep them feeling young, vibrant and healthy.
dos Santos Duarte Junior, M.A., López-Gil, J.F., Caporal, G.C. et al. Benefits, risks and possibilities of strength training in school Physical Education: a brief review. Sport Sci Health 18, 11–20 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11332-021-00847-3
McBurney, H., Taylor, N., Dodd, K., & Graham, H. (2003). A qualitative analysis of the benefits of strength training for young people with cerebral palsy. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 45(10), 658-663. doi:10.1017/S0012162203001233
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